Sunday, February 03, 2013

A Guide To Columbus - Officially

If you fancied offering your services as a tour guide, could you just put an ad in a paper and wait for tourists to come flocking? Well, you could, but you would need to be aware that you might be breaking the law.

Some definition is probably required. A tour guide, as in a rep with a tour operator for example, is not the same as what the Balearics tourism ministry and the Official College of Tour Guides in the Balearic Islands consider to be a tour guide. Article 65 of the tourism law identifies what is meant by a tour guide - "guía turístico or turística", depending on gender and not to be confused with a different "guía turística", which is a published guide. Such a human guide engages in regular and professional work in providing information and interpretative services regarding the islands' historical and natural heritage, assets of cultural interest and any other tourism resource. He or she must be accredited, and authorisation to work as a guide has to be granted by the tourism ministry.

There has been a recent flurry of activity regarding official tour guides in Mallorca. Groups have visited two towns to learn more about matters of specific cultural interest, the towns in question being Petra and Felanitx. Forty guides turned up in Petra to be able to offer "routes", both cultural and gastronomic, related to Fray Juniper, whose 300th birthday is being celebrated this year. (I'm not sure what the gastronomic bit has to do with the old Father, but be that as it may.)

This is all perfectly reasonable. Juniper Serra was born in Petra, of this there is no doubt. He is one of Mallorca's most famous sons, albeit that his fame outside of Mallorca is largely restricted to California, where he was a missionary. The twenty guides who have been to Felanitx, on the other hand, pitched up to hear about someone whose Mallorcan connection is, at best, highly questionable: Christopher Columbus.

The guides heard from the Mallorcan historian who has been arguing the case for Coumbus having come from Felanitx for years, Gabriel Verd Martorell. Much though I admire Verd's persistence, the biggest problem he has lies in convincing a sceptical world that his version of history is the correct one. The world still believes, and probably correctly, that Columbus came from Genoa.

One report of the gathering of the guides in Felanitx used a telling word. It said (and I translate) that the guides "are charged with indoctrinating ...". It may not have intended the implication, but indoctrination is usually taken to mean instruction in often contentious ideas to the point that they are accepted uncritically. The guides of Felanitx are, in effect, a means of furthering propaganda about Columbus that remains unproven.

There are of course examples of tourism attractions which are based on falsehoods: Loch Ness is one such. No guide worth his salt or his profession would insist that the monster exists, and so information which is conveyed concentrates on how the legend came about. And this is how it should be. If guides make it perfectly clear that Columbus's origins in Felanitx are but one theory about Columbus, then no real harm is done. If they end up leaving visitors believing that he did come from Felanitx, then they are causing harm, because they will have turned a theory into a fact. Much would depend upon how persuasive the "indoctrination" is and so therefore the belief.

One comes back to the credentials that a tour guide needs under the tourism law. They are designed, one would presume, to ensure that a guide is capable of disseminating fact, of distinguishing between fact and supposition or alternative theory and of not passing on garbage. There are many involved in the tourism industry who deal with the latter because they are misinformed or not informed at all. Hence, why there is an official college for guides and official authorisation required for guides to practise.

The Felanitx theory is an intriguing one and it certainly isn't without persuasion. Verd is sincere in his beliefs about Columbus. But it is, I stress, only a theory, and tour guides, one would hope, would appreciate this. There is, from the same report I mentioned above, another telling line. It is a quote from Verd. "We have made the product (Columbus from Felanitx), but until now have failed to commercialise it." And therein lies the rub, the commercialisation, the marketing, the money. But the word for "made" in the original Spanish report is potentially the most telling: "fabricado".

Any comments to please.

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